Henry James said of Venice in 1872:
“There are trailers who think the place odious, and those who are not of this opinion often find themselves wishing that the others were only more numerous. The sentimental tourists’ sole quarrel with Venice is that he has too many competitors there. He likes to be alone; to be original; to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries. The Venice of today is a vast museum where the little wicket that admits you is perpetually turning and creaking, and you march through the institution with a herd of fellow-gazers … But this is not the fault of Venice; it is the fault of the rest of the world…”
(From the essay “Venice: An Early Impression”)
How many of us want to have Venice all to ourselves? Or we feel like there are too many visitors and some of them just shouldn’t be allowed in? I’ve spent many hours wandering the city in order to get away from the tourist crowds and learn the back streets, the “real” Venice, and I’m sure more than once I’ve said disdainful things about the tourist hordes. (For a while my favorite phrase was one I overheard in a Carnevale crowd: “La peste turista.” The tourist plague–kind of like the Black Plague?) I like how Henry James’ quote above acknowledges this feeling but gently pokes fun at it at the same time.
I’ve come to love (well, most of the time, anyway) the many sides of Venice. Sometimes as I cross the Rialto Bridge, I try to hide my smile at the people as they pose at the apex to snap a photo, blocking foot traffic. Or I make a game out of veering creatively around the people who have stopped in the middle of an intersection of streets to study their map, blocking foot traffic. Or I’ve come up behind people who enter the Piazza San Marco only to stop in their tracks, blocking foot traffic, as they gape at the wondrous beauty of it. I can catch the energy of these people as they soak in their experience, or sometimes I try to remember how I felt the first (or first few) times I walked those narrow streets, gaped at the Basilica, stared at the fish in the Rialto market, crossed a bridge only to be stunned by the view of the canal. Can you blame them? Have you really never done the same thing while blocking foot traffic?
On the other hand, the numbers of visitors to Venice keeps increasing at an alarming rate, beyond what urban planners call the “point of saturation.” I picked up a well-written pamphlet called “Dear Tourist” by Paolo Lanapoppi. He looks at the tourist statistics bandied around and tries to get to the bottom of them. For example, Venice probably averages 82,000 visitors a day (besides the population of about 55,000). That’s an average, of course, so there are quiet days in November when 15,000 people come through, and peak days in summer–or Carnevale, or the Biennale, or the film festival–when 140,000 people come through in a day. In 2007, he says, about 28 million visitors came to Venice. That’s a lot of people coming through the “little wicket.” I bet when Henry James complained, he never could have imagined such numbers.
Venice is a World Heritage Site. A study by Georgetown University ranked 94 such sites on criteria such as environmental quality, cultural integrity, condition of historic buildings, tourism quality, and outlook for its future. Venice ranked 90th, just above the very bottom. The report said, “One gets a sense of the decay of the city everywhere and almost regrets coming as a result of feeling like an accomplice to the deterioration of the city.” Ah, visiting Venice is indeed a sticky wicket.
Alas, I am part of that horde. I am a foreigner who goes there as often as I can. To do what I can to not be an accomplice in Venice’s decline, I recycle, I shop local businesses, I eat fresh rather than processed foods, I throw away my trash in the proper place, I don’t block foot traffic, I walk more than I take fuel-guzzling and wave-making boats, I get to know locals. I’d love to hear what others do to manage to visit Venice in sustainable ways.
We’ve heard some say that Venice should be like Disneyland, with a little wicket at the entrance, and a fee for visitors, limiting the number of people who enter. In fact, Lanopoppi suggests a plan for tour group reservations and reasonable limitations to the number of visitors. If we want to keep visiting the city ourselves, we might all have to get behind some kind of plan like this to sustain the Venice we’ve come to love.